Friday, July 15, 2011

The President's Analyst

It's hard to know when you are ahead of your times. Just ask Theodore J. Flicker. 1967 seemed like a pretty good year for an extremely satirical film about the CIA, FBI,crazy gun culture, insane politics, race relations, and the entire concept of the Cold War as a half-bogus game.

But the movie The President's Analyst came and went with barely a whisper. Too bad. Though it is not one of the major cinematic high points of the 1960s, it is certainly one of the decade's funniest and strangely accurate reflections of the era. Besides, it also had the ironic ability to tick off J. Edgar Hoover which is a greater honor than any twenty Oscars.

 It's a pretty straight forward tale about a New York shrink (James Coburn) who is recruited by a government agent/hit man (Godfrey Cambridge) into becoming the personal analyst to the president. Along the way, Coburn has a nervous break down while fleeing from assassins sent after him by every nation on earth, goes on a hippie excursion through the Great Lakes region and finds himself getting a new patient courtesy of a KGB agent (Severn Darden) who discovers that he needs his doctor more than his country. He also has to keep one step ahead of the near midgets from the FBI who carries some of the biggest guns ever seen in the pre-Dirty Harry age.

Oh yeah, that was the part that especially ticked off J. Edgar. The bureau director in the movie is a diminutive and tightly wound borderline psycho who only hires agents who are shorter than himself and routinely issues orders in the name of the "as yet unborn." Hoover was not amused and placed the production under FBI surveillance.   

The President's Analyst plays like a Mad Magazine parody of the social turmoil of the late 1960s. The film also contains an incredibly good performance by Cambridge who remains one of the most under appreciated performers of the period. Cambridge had originally been a dramatic actor who turned to stand up comedy as his "day job" and is able to smoothly shift between farce and seriousness without ever batting an eye. Also on display in a brief role is the young William Daniels whose skill at theater of absurdity is in full force as a liberal who will put away his guns as soon as the conservatives surrender their weapons.

As a director, Flicker is occasionally clumsy with his transition cuts and the movie has a slightly uneven sense of pacing. But Flicker was, most likely, the only filmmaker around who could follow his own crazy logic. The result is brash, often hysterically accurate, and one of the few movies that can match the warped humor of something like Dr. Strangelove.

Besides, this flick is also the definitive cinematic statement about the phone company. In some ways, the ending is more accurate now than it was then.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

O. C. and Stiggs

A friend once told me that he had seen this movie six times and still couldn't decide if it was any good.  Actually, he wasn't even quite sure what it was even about.  In all honestly, he wasn't even certain if he had actually seen it.  I just thought he was being difficult until the third time I watched O. C. and Stiggs and realized that I was having the same reaction.

 So it is definitely not a film for someone who is looking for a quick and easy story.  Or even for people seeking clear cut characters and obvious motivations.  Heck, it's not even for folks wanting some simple sex and violence.  It's less a movie and more of a photographic hit off of a joint.  Maybe.  Originally intended (at least by the producers) to be a smart-ass teenage sex comedy, O. C. and Stiggs is low on the sex, extremely high on a very off-center sense of satire and off-beat observations, strikingly nonlinear and exceptionally weird in its tribute to the fleeting pursuit of happiness against the arid landscape of Arizona.

 This was director Robert Altman's last commercial mainstream film before he bolted to Paris for his long state of exile from Hollywood.  Made in 1985 and given an extremely limited (and belated) release in 1987, the movie can be partly viewed as Altman's final flipping of the bird to the American studio system.  Ironically, O. C. and Stiggs was produced by MGM, the same studio that Altman aggravated years earlier with his production of Brewster McCloud (an even more odd ball fantasy that shares many features in common with O. C. and Stiggs).

 Loosely adapted from a series of stories published in the National Lampoon, O. C. and Stiggs follows the strangely meandering exploits of two Arizona teenagers who have dedicated their lives to outrageously annoying their Republican neighbor (Paul Dooley), buying liquor from their favorite wino (Melvin Van Peebles) and routinely relaying their experiences by phone to their favorite African dictator whose private number they inexplicably have on speed dial.  Meanwhile, they make periodic visits to the area's craziest Vietnam vet (Dennis Hopper parodying his role from Apocalypse Now) who lives in his bunker out in the desert, waiting for the next surprise attack from the Vietcong.  There is also some odd sub plot involving the mysterious death of a local mechanic named Bugs Bunny and his slutty wife who may (or may not) be acting out a few riffs from a James Cain novel.

 None of these plot lines are really connected to each other and Altman is totally uninterested in making such connections.  Instead, he has adopted an open ended and very free flowing narrative (somewhat like he did in Nashville) and the viewer either accepts it or not.  Unlike the original stories, the movie invokes a more sympathetic and oddly gentle approach (to some of the characters) despite its own warped sensibility (and warp more than twisted may be the right word).  At its best, the film is less a gross-out than a supreme weird-out as it seesaws between an amused engagement and a total WTF mindset.

 So if you are in the mood for an excessive dose of hip irony, check it out.  Just don't get too carried away trying to figure it out.  Even the experts are still baffled.  By my fourth viewing, I only knew that I think maybe I kind of like this flick but have no clues why.

 Just remember what Hooper tells the kids when they question him about being in Vietnam.  "Was I really in Vietnam?  Does Ho Chi Minh eat Rice Krispies?"

 Say no more.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

My Name Is Bruce

Some people are born to greatness and some people will never have to worry about that issue.  Bruce Campbell will never have to worry.

Oh sure, he is a cult legend.  Campbell is the king of the modern B movie.  He is the heir to the throne of Dick Miller.  But most of all, Campbell could use a real job.  As he demonstrates in My Name Is Bruce, monster hunting just ain't all it's cracked up to be.

This crude, lewd, and oddly endearing horror/comedy is Campbell's back-handed tribute to his own bogus legend.  The whole movie plays like a dinner theater crew's recreation of Plan Nine From Outer Space as it staggers (and so does the heavy drinking Campbell) through a screwy yarn that might have been written down on the back of cocktail napkins.

While working on another crappy straight-to-video production, Campbell is kidnapped by a neo-goth fan and finds himself stuck in the town of Gold Lick (population 399 and dropping fast).  Seems that some local teenagers have accidentally brought to life the Chinese god Guan-Di and Guan-Di is not a happy camper.  He is determined to slaughter everyone in sight for the century old death of 100 Chinese workers in a cave in..  Since Campbell is a little slow on the draw, he assumes that the whole thing is a birthday joke being staged by his lousy agent (Ted Raimi in one of several roles).  Besides, he is hoping to get lucky with his fan's lonely mother.

Largely made for hardcore Bruce Campbell fans, everything bad said about My Name Is Bruce is basically true.  The movie is as cheap looking as the booze Campbell keeps sneaking while preparing for the "hunt."  The script is almost as stupid as the type of films it is poking fun at.  The general acting level covers a range from A to...well, A.

But if you get the movie on a DVD and watch it with a good pizza and several beers, well, it actually moves along as a pretty OK fun flick.  Heck, I am actually looking forward to the sequel.

Besides, Bruce Campbell does not need greatness.  He is his own kind of guy.